Conrad was so irritable that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of picking it up at once and carrying on writing, he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred. His character remained an enigma to those around him. His inner state of agitation would sometimes cause him to fall silent for long periods, even in the company of his friends, who would wait patiently until he resumed the conversation, in which, ordinarily, he was extremely animated, displaying a remarkable gift for storytelling. They say that his tone then was more like the tone in his book of essays, The Mirror of the Sea, than in his stories or novels. After one of these interminable and apparently ruminative silences, he would usually come out with some unlikely question that had nothing whatsoever to do with what they had been talking about up until then, for example: “What do you think of Mussolini?”
Javier Marías, from Joseph Conrad on Land
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Conrad wore a monocle and disliked poetry. According to his wife, he only ever gave his approval to two books of verse, one by a young Frenchman whose name she could not recall and the other by his friend Arthur Symons. There are, however, those who maintain that he liked Keats and hated Shelley. The author he hated most, though, was Dostoyevsky. He hated him because he was Russian, because he was mad, and because he was confused, and the mere mention of his name would provoke a furious outburst. He devoured books, with Flaubert and Maupassant heading the list of those he most admired, and took such pleasure in prose that, long before proposing to the woman who would become his wife (that is, when they were still not as yet close companions), he turned up one night bearing a bundle of papers and suggested that the young woman read a few of these pages—part of his second novel—out loud. Full of fear and trembling, Jessie George obeyed, but Conrad’s own nervousness did not help: “Never mind that part,” he would say. “That is not going to stand—never mind it—start three lines lower; over leaf, over leaf.” He even criticised her diction: “Speak distinctly; if you’re tired, say so; don’t eat your words. You English are all alike, you make the same sound for every letter.” The odd thing is that this same persnickety Conrad had, until the end of his days, an extremely thick foreign accent in the language which, as a writer, he came to master better than any author of his day.
Javier Marías, from Joseph Conrad on Land
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(Joseph Conrad in 1874 & 1904)
Joseph Conrad (actually Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, 1857–1924) was a Polish-British writer regarded as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language. Though he did not speak English fluently until his twenties, he was a master prose stylist who brought a non-English sensibility into English literature. Conrad wrote stories and novels, many with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit in the midst of what he saw as an impassive, inscrutable universe. Conrad's finest works are Nostromo (1904), Heart of Darkness (1899), and Lord Jim (1900).
Joseph Conrad's family was of Polish descent and lived in Berdyczów. It is located in a region that the Polish sometimes refer to as the "Stolen Lands," since it was taken from the Kingdom of Poland. His parents were Polish nobility, and Conrad’s father, in addition to working as a writer and a translator, was a political activist, involved in the activities of conspiracy directed against the Russian tsar. For this, he was arrested by the Russian authorities. Conrad’s earliest surviving writing reads: "To my beloved Grandma who helped me send cakes to my poor Daddy in prison – grandson, Pole, Catholic, nobleman – 6 July 1863 – Konrad". Within seven years, both of Conrad’s parents had died of tuberculosis and he was sent to live with his Uncle Tadeusz, in Kraków. He was raised to pursue a career as a sailor. During the Kraków years, the solitary, hypersensitive and well-read young Conrad impressed friends by memorizing and reciting long passages from Mickiewicz's 'Pan Tadeusz' and by writing patriotic plays, like 'The Eyes of Jan Sobieski', in which Polish nationalists defeated the Muscovite enemy. Pleased with himself and accustomed to the undivided attention of his parents, Conrad once disturbed an adult conversation with the egoistic question: 'And what do you think of me?' To which the reply was: 'You're a young fool who interrupts when his elders are talking.' Conrad's distant cousin in Lvov, with whose family he lived in 1873-74, later described his intelligence, ambitions, sarcasm, desire for freedom, informal manners and ill health:
'He stayed with us ten months... Intellectually he was extremely advanced but he disliked school routine, which he found tiring and dull; he used to say that he was very talented and planned to become a great writer... He disliked all restrictions. At home, at school, or in the living room he would sprawl unceremoniously. He used to suffer from severe headaches and nervous attacks; the doctors thought that a stay at the seaside might cure him.'
Conrad left high school early in 1874 without finishing the course. He had studied some Greek, Latin and German, Polish Romantic literature, mathematics, history and his favorite subject, geography. But he had also read widely on his own, especially books on distant voyages and exotic exploration. Like Lord Jim, he was attracted to the adventurous aspects of nautical life and lived 'in his mind the sea-life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane... always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book'.
At the age of seventeen he began a long period of adventure at sea. Conrad sailed for four years on French ships; after getting into debt and shooting himself in the chest in Marseille, he joined the British merchant service in 1878. He served for fifteen more years under the British flag. He eventually rose to the rank of captain. In 1886, he became a British citizen. Conrad was 36 when he left the merchant marine in 1894. He was ready to seek a second career as a writer. During the next fifteen years, he published what most consider the finest works of his career. Conrad inhabited English, as well as England, as a kind of intimate foreigner. His British friends were puzzled (and a touch envious) over his intense, evocative use of their language. Rudyard Kipling remarked that "with a pen in his hand he was first amongst us," but added: "Reading him, I always have the feeling that I am reading a good translation of a foreign writer". And, as Virginia Woolf put it in a sketch in 1923: "Certainly he was a strange apparition to descend upon these shores in the last part of the nineteenth century - an artist, an aristocrat, a Pole. For after all these years I cannot think of him as an English writer. He is too formal, too courteous, too scrupulous in the use of a language which is not his own. Then of course he is an aristocrat to the backbone. His humor is aristocratic - ironic, sardonic, never broad and free like the common English humor which descends from Falstaff".
In April 1924, Conrad declined to accept the offer of a British knighthood on the grounds that he was already a Polish nobleman by birth. He also turned down offers of honorary degrees from five prestigious universities. Other manifestations of his attachment to the traditional lifestyle of the Polish nobility (or szlachta) are the inclusion of the Nałęcz coat of arms in the collected edition of his works and — not least — his extravagance and his nonchalant attitude towards money. The rooms of his house were furnished in the style of Polish manor houses, while the elegance of his attire was also reminiscent of that of the Polish nobility. Paul Langlois — a French acquaintance from Mauritius — has left us the following description of the way Conrad dressed: “In contrast to his colleagues Captain Korzeniowski was always dressed like a dandy. I can still see him […] arriving almost every day in my office dressed in a black or dark coat, a waistcoat, usually of a light color, and fancy trousers, all well cut and of great elegance; he would be wearing a black or grey bowler tilted slightly to one side, would always wear gloves and carried a cane with a gold knob”. The second (and more significant) plane on which Conrad’s noble heritage operates is his pursuit of the ideals of the Polish nobility and what would seem to be his re-examination of them in his works. First and foremost, there is the idea of honor. This concept, stemming from the ethos of chivalry, became an integral part of the Polish nobility’s system of values. David Garnett contrasted Henry James, who thought about “nothing but money,” with Conrad, who, “in his way — thought about ‘nothing but honor’". The notion of honor, is crucial for an interpretion of many of Conrad’s narratives, e.g. Lord Jim, Nostromo, Duel or Chance. Primarily seen in his own time as a writer of boys' sea stories, Conrad is now highly regarded as a novelist whose work displays a deep moral consciousness and masterful narrative technique. An anchor-shaped monument to Conrad in Gdynia, on Poland's Baltic Seacoast, features a quotation from him in Polish: 'Nic tak nie nęci, nie rozczarowuje i nie zniewala, jak życie na morzu' ('There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea').
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